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Who built the Suez Canal?

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My old history books gave the credit for constructing the Suez Canal to Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French developer.  But he had help.

The excavation took some 10 years using forced labour (Corvée) of Egyptian workers during a certain period. Some sources estimate that over 30,000 people were working on the canal at any given period, that altogether more than 1.5 million people from various countries were employed, and that thousands of laborers died on the project.

Part of my family’s history is that my great-grandfather was unable to settle down right away after fighting with the Union Army in the American Civil War at the ferocious battles of Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.  He travelled around the world, arriving in 1869 in Egypt just as the canal was opening.  In Cairo, he attended one of the first performances of Verdi’s opera Aida, written for the occasion.

Those hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who actually built the Suez Canal also have descendants — who also have family memories.  As they continue to bravely occupy Tahrir Square, they might be excused if they have not lost their suspicions about Western sincerity.

Update: This post was published in 2011. If you’re reading it now, in 2013, do you mind letting us know what brought it to your attention? It’s gotten a lot of traffic, and we’d like to know why. Thanks. Write to [email protected] or [email protected]

James North
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